Ubu Roi @ The Barbican

I have always admired Cheek by Jowl’s work, and Ubu Roi is no exception. In fact, I’d say it’s the best performance by this company that I have seen. Admittedly it was pretty weird, but the combination of the comedy of the text, and the energy exerted by the performance made the play very entertaining to watch. Written by Alfred Jarry in 1896, the play is a story about Pere Ubu, who wants to murder the king of Poland in order to take his place. Spurred on by his wife, Ubu is able to get rid of the royal family, killing all those around him, and taking everything for himself. Director Declan Donnellan has re-imagined this play by framing it inside a modern French living room, during a very fancy dinner party.

Photo: Johan Persson

In the beginning, the audience is introduced to a teenage boy (Xavier Boiffier, doubling as Bordure), who is filming his parents. The father of the household (performed brilliantly by Christophe Gregoire, who doubles as Pere Ubu) is preparing dinner, while the mother (Camille Cayol, who also doubles as Mere Ubu) is getting ready. As soon as the couple show a slight interest in each other in front of their son, the lighting and sound indicates a switch in atmosphere, and the two actors begin immersing themselves in jerky, grotesque movement. Then straight away, the atmosphere cuts back to the normality of the household, which is hilarious to watch. Throughout the play, the audience are thrown from one reality to another as we are told the story of Ubu Roi. Props to the actors for being so composed on stage though, I would’ve cracked up so easily.

Photo: Johan Persson

Donellan has successfully brought the chaos of the text on to the stage. The beautifully white, clean, bourgeois set, designed by Nick Ormerod, is trashed wonderfully by the performers by the end of the show. The play’s comment on power and society is channelled by Donellan through the setting, and also with the very imaginative use of props. The lampshade in the living room is transformed into the King of Poland’s crown, while the bathroom matt is used as Pere Ubu’s armour to prepare him for war. I especially loved the use of the blender as a weapon of torture. It is this aspect of the performance that made the text’s humour come through so well.

Photo: Johan Persson

The play is performed in French, with English subtitles. I found that at times I wasn’t really paying attention to the subtitles at all, but focusing on what was happening on stage. The elements of the text that mirror Shakespeare’s work has been interpreted well by Donellan. The way Mere Ubu manipulates Pere Ubu (like in Macbeth) is portrayed through the very sexual relationship the two characters have. The creepy sexual stuff is also encompassed in the play’s mirroring of Hamlet, which Donellan manifests in Bordure, who films the mother while she is in her underwear in the beginning of the play.

Truthfully, there were some points where I was completely baffled. But sometimes you need to embrace the chaos for something awesome to happen, and this is a very good example of that. It was a very good production, and I wish it luck on its European tour.

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